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“What are you doing up?” Tracy Blevin checked the wall clock in the Wood’s Café kitchen, it was only one a.m. and she was just getting started with her baking for the night.
“Couldn’t sleep with all the racket,” Hunter Wood, the owner of Wood’s Café said, trying to sound gruff, but not coming close to pulling it off. He’d appeared at the side kitchen door, bottom of the staircase that led to his loft-styled apartment.
“Oh sure, don’t blame me for your insomnia.”
Hunter grinned, that terrific smile that always caught her off guard. His nearly black hair, shaved short on the sides was long enough on top to comb straight back from his forehead, which he’d done. Though these days, she liked that he’d started to part it on the side, had even grown a thin jaw-line beard, looking all trendy, like a modern-day businessman. “You’re right. I decided to serve pulled pork sandwiches for lunch today and I’ve got to get the meat going. Needs to cook long and slow to be tender and juicy.”
She rolled out a ball of pie dough. “You’re making my mouth water.” For the past three months, they’d mostly played tag-team in the kitchen, her working after midnight, after her real job as an RN, him on the early morning through lunchtime shift. The hours his café was open.
Tracy could have sworn something had sparked between Hunter and her the day their mutual good friends Joe Collins and Taylor Clark got married. He’d catered the meal and she’d handled dessert, a perfect match. Whatever it was then, seemed to have fizzled since May, probably because of her. In other words, the usual story for Tracy’s love life. Which she’d finally laid to rest two years ago, after the last going-nowhere relationship. RIP.
She’d admired him from afar when he used to work at Donna Lee’s diner, liked his light olive skin and long hair, with the hint of Native American heritage in his eyes and mannerisms. She’d learned he was one-quarter Crow. She’d also kept her thoughts to herself about being drawn to him, used the excuse of his being thirty and her thirty-two to brush the attraction aside. Any excuse would do, since she’d been disillusioned by love one too many times, and really a girl had to know when to say when. Now she worked for Hunter part time on top of her regular job as an RN at the Charity Urgent Care, and what he paid helped toward her new cabin mortgage payments.
In other words, they were good for each other, as long as she didn’t want too much or get her hopes up. And she was grateful to him for quietly understanding.
But as she kneaded and rolled out her pie dough something occurred to her—lately, he kept making excuses to occupy the kitchen the same time she did. And, heaven help her, she liked it.
He opened the refrigerator that took up half of one wall, his jeans and T-shirt fitting like perfection, and grabbed two huge pork shoulders then generously hand seasoned them.
Wanting desperately to keep the conversation going, she went with the first thought to pop into her head. “What would you think if I branched out and started making chicken or beef pot pies, maybe even vegan pot pies?”
“Sounds promising,” he said, more interested in searing his meat in a huge pan.
“I could freeze them. Sell them through you for people to take home and bake themselves.”
“Uh-huh.” While the meat seared he chopped onions, celery and carrots rapidly, like a culinary master.
He clearly wasn’t paying attention to her. “Maybe I could make JELL-O pot pies and add fingernails.”
He stopped chopping, stared at her briefly with those bedroom eyes, then stepped over to the searing meat and flipped both humongous shoulders to the other side. “You know what I think?”
She waited for the answer to his rhetorical question, but he didn’t give one right away, so she gave the obligatory, “Tell me.”
“That all we ever talk about is food.”
He wasn’t the easiest guy to start a conversation with, and she’d never wanted to entertain the thought of getting to know him better when it might mess up their work relationship, so she’d always stuck to their mutual interest. But on his point, she’d play dumb. “Really?”
“Tell me one thing you’ve learned about me lately,” he challenged, turning his head and shoulder away from the stove, to catch her gaze.
She stopped rolling the dough to think. Being fall in Charity, with warmer than usual weather, he’d come downstairs in a short-sleeved tee-shirt, so she couldn’t help but notice. “Uh, you’ve added another section to your tattoo?” She stepped closer to see better. “It looks like a sun symbol.” The center was a red circle with black sunrays curling clockwise around it.
“Anyone can see that, but do you know why I got it and what it means?”
Another rhetorical question? She wouldn’t waste the time. “Tell me.”
After he poured some water over the pork, added the vegetables and covered two large pots, then turned on the burners to bring the water to simmering, he joined her at the pie station. Leaning on the counter, he pointed out the newest symbol on his left forearm. “This may look like a common sun symbol, but if you’ll notice, it has seven rays, each representing an energy center. Most importantly, it’s the bearer of light.”
“Wisdom?” Deep in thought, he didn’t reply. “Does it give you energy?” she persisted.
“It identifies me as being a peace-loving person, and for a guy who spent two years in the pen, or Club Fed as some liked to call it, that says something, right?”
“Does it mean you’ve changed?”
“No. I’ve always been that way. Part of my upbringing.”
Which must’ve made prison extra challenging. “Must be a relief to have that behind you.” She wanted to ask how he’d gotten there, what he’d done, but now didn’t seem like the right time. Would there ever be a “right” time?
“Incarceration may be over, but I’ll never be rid of the experience. It’s made me abnormally independent, and I don’t trust many people.”
“I get that about you.” She could have told him that from her observations of how he dealt with her, always keeping her at a distance, which suited her for her own reasons just fine. He’d never opened up until today. He struck her as the quiet observer type, and his personality style wasn’t exactly compatible with her need to feel needed. Good thing she was a nurse and got her fill of needy people at work, because she’d never expect him to ask her for anything. “Okay, so it’s your turn to tell me something you’ve learned about me,” she said, testing his skills of observation.
He took the huge covered pots of pork, now that the water simmered, and placed them in the industrial sized oven, lids on. “How about if I ask you some questions instead?”
“Okay.” She wasn’t sure if she liked this game or not.
“Have you ever been married?”
Oh, man, she really didn’t want to talk about that, but he’d asked so she owed it to him, since he seemed to be opening up. “Yes.”
“And you’re not now.” He glanced over his shoulder as he closed the stove.
“Why?” He leaned against the counter beside the stove and folded his arms.
Good question. She fiddled with the next batch of pies, filling them, waiting for the oven. Anything to avoid eye contact. “The whole thing was one big mistake. We were kids, didn’t know what we were doing, other than we thought that was the next step since we’d been dating for years and thought we loved each other.” No way would she tell him the whole story. They’d have to be much better friends for that.
“Thought you loved each other?”
“I didn’t have a clue what love was then.” Her parents hadn’t exactly set a great standard for love.
“And you do now?”
She paused, dared to look at him, his dark eyes drilled into her. “Still not sure.” Her first big love after her divorce happened when she’d moved to Charity. His name had been Mark, and he’d made her think she was the center of his world, sweet talking her to heaven, letting her grow huge dreams about their future over the year they’d been together. Then waltzing in one day telling her he’d gotten a job offer in Wyoming as foreman of an even bigger ranch. No problem, she’d said, I’m a nurse, I can find a job anywhere. The problem was, he didn’t invite her to come.
“So what happened to the marriage?”
Oh, that? My first failure at love? “I left.” She fibbed and poured the lemon custard mixture into two baked shells, her brief marriage seeming so distant now, there’d been so many other failed relationships since. Bottom line, she’d tried so hard to overcompensate for her parents’ failed marriage, she’d driven her husband nuts. Constantly asking if he was happy, trying too hard at everything, determined to make their marriage everything her parents’ marriage hadn’t been. It’d all backfired, and Ryan withdrew, which made her try harder, so he pulled back further and further until he wanted to leave. She’d tried to talk him out of it, but reality came crashing around her, they didn’t belong together. She wasn’t mature enough to handle marriage. The final decision had been mutual. So why lie to Hunter?
“You walked out?” He sounded surprised.
“Uh, yes.” Not exactly.
“So you’re a quitter.”
He’d just tagged her with “quitter” when what she’d been guilty of was trying too hard. Why hadn’t she told him the whole truth? Because it was complicated and she was still ashamed of the fact that her husband had wanted to leave first. That leaving Tracy seemed like a pattern with men, including her last three boyfriends right here in Charity. Angry and feeling ambushed by Hunter, she struck out, “I am not.”
She’d been clueless about real love back then. Now she wasn’t sure if it existed, except she’d seen evidence of it around her, like with Joe and Taylor. That’s what she wanted, but couldn’t see it for herself. Still, when she searched for her new home, then bought it, part of the draw was imagining a future there. It was a secret dream she’d kept to herself, because she was still afraid of more pain and heartache.
Her response, I am not, didn’t faze him. “Your ex-husband might think differently.” He picked up a few utensils he’d used and tossed them into the sink.
It stopped her. Made her think. Ryan had been fine with their breakup. She’d been the one to suffer. How dare Hunter stand there in judgment? “You call yourself a peacemaker while jabbing a stick like that at me?” Her vision coned down to a dark center with red lining, kind of like that sun symbol on his arm, except not remotely relating to peace. “And this coming from the wise recluse.”
She shoved her pies with the meringue topping into the baking oven on the opposite side of the kitchen, and slammed the door. No way he didn’t get her message.
He observed her quietly for a moment, letting her calm down. “Being a recluse was a survival tactic in prison.”
Darn, he was playing dirty. How could she still be angry at him? “Well, sometimes walking out is a survival tactic, too.” Their situation had been immature and painful to recall. If they’d stuck it out, they would have stifled each other, probably wound up hating each other, too. Kind of like her parents.
Ugh, an awful pang in her chest forced her to accept she’d been doing a fine job of stifling herself ever since.
That you stepped over the line? Still, she was surprised by his quick apology. The men in her life never seemed able to do that. “You are?”
“I’m not good at conversations.”
“I’ll have to agree with that.” Now she was the one leaning against the counter.
“Your pie smells good.”
“Great, and I don’t know what you put on that pork, but I can’t wait to try it for lunch.”
“I’ll save a sandwich for you.”
Having returned to the one topic that was safe—food—they went about the rest of their business in silence, having only peeked into each other’s former lives. There was so much more he didn’t know about her, and she suspected the same with him.
Tracy knew Hunter went to the same Saturday night men’s group that Joe Collins did, because she was work buddies with Taylor, Joe’s wife, who called it an accountability group. She also knew most of the men were ex-convicts. The rest of the week he cooked for his breakfast/lunch café. She’d never seen him in the town bar. In fact, the only time she’d seen him in a social situation was last year when she’d dragged Taylor to the Annual Country Music Festival in Kalispell. He’d been there with Joe, danced with one of the waitresses from Donna Lee’s there, too, so she knew he had some social skills.
When she grabbed her sweater ready to head home, she stopped. “Got any big plans for your day off?” Being a small business owner, Sunday was the only day he didn’t work.
He checked on the pork with a forearm length oven mitten. “Got a standing date every Sunday.”
“With a lady?” Okay, she was nosy and knew it. Maybe a little jealous, too. Church? Yeah, she’d prefer that.
“With a mare.”
“With a horse or a politician?”
A horse, who’d have thought? Well, at least it wasn’t a woman.
End of Excerpt